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£100 million Orion Laser Project Will Mimic Nuclear Explosion

On the site of an old runway in the Berkshire countryside, builders are preparing the ground for an extraordinary scientific facility that will create states of matter found nowhere else on Earth. The world\'s most powerful laser will be capable of recreating for a fraction of a second the conditions found at the heart of a thermonuclear explosion. At the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Aldermaston, Britain\'s nuclear warhead factory and intended home to Orion, the laser is seen as a vital investment. It will allow weapons scientists to fine tune the complex computer models used to simulate nuclear explosions. The project has inflamed anti-nuclear campaigners, who believe Orion may be used to develop next generation nuclear weapons and want the matter settled by a Public Inquiry. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has received 155 letters opposing the project. More than 200 have been sent to West Berkshire council. \"This is of major national importance and shouldn\'t be put through on the nod at a local planning committee meeting in a church hall,\" said Di MacDonald of the Nuclear Information Service, a nuclear disarmament group. \"Given the number of objections, the Planning Committee would be well within its remit to pass this back to the Government to raise a Public Inquiry.\" Richard Stokes, leader of Slough borough council, believes the MoD is trying to push Orion through before the law on Crown Immunity changes in April. \"After that time, they will need to apply for planning permission like everyone else and we\'re hoping we can delay the decision until that time,\" he said. It is hoped to get Orion running by 2010, when it will become the focus of research for 100 AWE scientists. Orion subjects ordinary materials to extraordinary forces. For each test, a fragment of material one millimetre across is placed inside a six tonne hollow aluminium sphere. When the laser is fired, the fragment is bombarded with laser light from 10 angles, crunching it to the width of a human hair. Almost simultaneously, two other laser beams fire, heating the sample to 3m degrees C.